In quest for more scoring muscle, Tar Heels turn to Brice Johnson
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Near the end of a long day rotating from spot to spot and flashing smiles on media day at the Smith Center, North Carolina's Marcus Paige stood for pictures before a black backdrop with a basketball on his hip. He was alone. Across the floor his teammates lingered far away, laughing and killing time. It was a snapshot the program cannot afford to relive this season: The potential All-America guard, all by himself with the ball in his hands, and no one else in sight.
“Marcus came through every time we asked him to last year,” forward Kennedy Meeks says. “Marcus will be the same Marcus. There will just be a lot more help.”
He needs it. The do-everything, All-ACC junior guard who averaged 17.5 points per game last season -- up from 8.2 as a freshman -- cannot be tasked with doing everything again, not if North Carolina wants to push for the championships and Final Four berth the players regularly discuss. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams has occasionally stopped practice this preseason to remind his team who the best player on the floor is, and Paige will undoubtedly be the first option when the team desperately needs a basket. What Williams must figure out is who his second and third options will be.
Williams spent most of Wednesday saying he doesn’t have many conclusions about his team yet, other than he needs scorers to emerge everywhere. The likeliest candidates to fill that role are a trio of forwards -- a bulked-up Brice Johnson, a slimmed-down Kennedy Meeks and the always high-flying J.P. Tokoto -- none of whom have demonstrated Paige's consistent ability to produce, or to be the focal point of the offense.
“A lot of guys last year were more conscious of the shots they wanted to take, and Marcus had to pick up the slack, because guys were kind of afraid to take shots,” Tokoto says. “It’s mental. Pickup games we play, guys aren’t afraid to take shots -- it’s pickup. They don’t have 30,000 people watching. It’s just preparing in practice, taking those shots you know you can take and you know you can make. And once the games start, implementing that right away, and not waiting until halfway into the season to get comfortable.”
There is a touch of irony to wondering where North Carolina goes offensively when it turns away from Paige. The Tar Heels do return 70.7 percent of their points from last season (1,841 of 2,604). But only Johnson, at 10.3 points per game, was a double-digit scorer. Paige drained 86 three-pointers last season; the rest of the returnees collectively accounted for 12. The team played 34 games a year ago and only six times did someone besides Paige or the departed James Michael McAdoo and Leslie McDonald lead the team in scoring.
So the search is on for consistency, reliability and balance. That began this summer with Paige asking for it. “I remember back to last year, there would be times where I felt like I was on an island, trying to create by myself,” he says. “We have talented guys on our team that are capable of making plays. You have to give them confidence. If the leader of the team is telling you to shoot the ball when you’re open, or try to make a play because you’re definitely capable, I think they take that to heart. We’ve seen a lot more of that – guys trying to make plays or taking risks, just so they can be a better part of the offense.”
Adhering to a UNC tradition in which freshmen don't speak to the media until after they've played their first game, none of the Tar Heels' highly touted first-year phenoms was available for quotes on Wednesday. A set of cameras, however, did follow 6-6 swingman Theo Pinson off the floor after team pictures, as if he was a departing head of state. It was emblematic of the anticipation greeting the three freshmen -- Pinson, 6-8 forward Justin Jackson and 6-0 point guard Joel Berry -- all of whom were McDonald's All-Americans. Pinson, a five-star from High Point, N.C., was hailed by his head coach on Wednesday for his instincts around the basket and his slashing ability. Williams lauded Jackson, another five-star from Houston, for his offensive efficiency. Jackson has “the knack,” as the Tar Heels coach put it. “Ball bounces around, bounces around, all of a sudden it bounces to him and he lays it up,” Williams says. “Pretty good trait.”
Still, Williams might as well have used recycled audio from the past two or three seasons for the crux of his preseason address: He wants someone, anyone, from a group of post players to assert himself as a go-to outlet, to say he is a “big-time player.”
It was the leap Williams saw Paige make as a sophomore. It is the demand he’s making of the big men now.
“One of the post players has to say that,” Williams says. “Not run down the court and wait for Marcus to do something.”
The group includes sophomores Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, juniors Johnson and Joel James and seniors Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons, but it is the trio of Johnson, Meeks and Tokoto who are likely to get the most playing time, and thus the first chance at being the number two option. Each of the three has taken different paths this offseason. Tokoto honed in on extending his range to the three-point line this summer. He was just 8-of-36 from long range as a sophomore and recognizes that his strengths reside in areas like rebounding, defense and pupil-dilating dunks. But he figured increased confidence from long distance would be just another weapon. Meeks, meanwhile, essentially reshaped himself off the floor. He was listed, generously, at 290 pounds during his freshman year. He is down to 270 now, with markedly improved muscle tone. And he actually didn’t mind the Brussels sprouts that James cooked recently. “I still don’t like them that much,” Meeks says, “but they were pretty good the other day when he made them.”
Shedding the extra tonnage theoretically makes for a quicker, bouncier force in the lane and a more emphatic finisher at the rim. “He’s actually dunking the ball now,” Johnson says of Meeks. “That’s a big difference. Him and Marcus had the same amount of dunks in a season.”
Yet in the pursuit of help for Paige, most eyes first alight upon Johnson. This is probably because it is not a question of talent. It is not about the ability to translate that talent into production.
It says something about the expectations heaped upon Johnson that his coach grades his effort level on a scale of one-to-Tyler Hansbrough. It’s just a bit daunting. Hansbrough was, of course, a national player of the year and a savant of going hard. So it seems fairly predictable that, during his freshman season, Johnson registered a three on that particular scale.
“I’m trying to get that up, not be a three anymore,” Johnson says. “Last year I wasn’t a three. (Williams) gave me a six. I’m just trying to get up there to where (Hansbrough) was.”
Johnson may never match Hansbrough in another category -- physical stature -- but he is getting closer there too. He recently looked at a picture of himself as a high school basketball player. "Lord," he says, "I thought I was going to waste away."
Johnson arrived at North Carolina in the fall of 2012 as a 6-9, 187-pound freshman. He's added 40 pounds in the last two years, including 20 pounds this offseason via a regimen of weightlifting and the well-worn see-food diet: “It’s whatever you see, eat,” he says. Johnson was encouraged to get six meals in per day, and while he couldn’t quite manage the half-dozen, he says he consistently ate four or five times and downed the protein shakes and vitamins the strength staff sent his way.
Now listed at 228 pounds, Johnson should be able to establish and maintain space on the block. Pouring in points from there can collapse defenses and compromise the attention paid to Paige. “I didn’t have a problem throwing it into Brice last year, because he’s shot  percent from the floor the past couple years,” Paige says. “It was just trying to get him to compete harder in other areas of the game, and I think he’s embraced that.”
Like everyone else, Johnson says he is aware Paige cannot beat a team by himself. “I mean, he did against (N.C.) State, but that was one game,” Johnson says with a smile, alluding to Paige’s 35-point performance and last-second, game-winning layup in a road victory last season. It’s mostly no laughing matter, and he realizes it. Someone, whoever it is, must join Paige as an offensive threat.
Johnson could certainly picture himself doing that.
“I could be that person,” he says. “I just have to be able to go out there and show it.”